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Statewide Races Offer Some Surprises, Runoffs

The down-ballot statewide races on both the Republican and Democratic sides yielded a number of runoffs and some surprises on Tuesday night.

*Correction appended

The down-ballot statewide races on both the Republican and Democratic sides yielded a number of runoffs and some surprises on Tuesday night.

In the highest-profile of those races, state Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, had a strong showing in the three-way primary to be the Republican nominee for attorney general, though not strong enough to win outright. He will face state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, in the May runoff.

Barry Smitherman, the chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, came in third. In a statement, he congratulated Paxton and Branch on running “clever campaigns.”

In a statement, Paxton noted that Branch had a strong financial advantage. “My runoff opponent spent millions of dollars trying to convince us he's a conservative, and he'll likely spend millions more in the runoff,” he said. “Texans weren’t fooled today, and they won’t be fooled on May 27th.”

Enrique Marquez, Branch’s campaign manager, said the campaign was pleased to be in the runoff after starting the race with Branch’s name identification at 4 percent. “The next round will be about choices, and when voters learn about Dan’s conservative record of results, the choice will be clear,” he said.

Paxton said voters had already indicated their choice. “Texans chose a friend of Senator [Ted] Cruz,” he said, “not someone who was gearing up to run against Ted Cruz just a few years ago.”

Cruz publicly expressed support for — but technically stopped short of endorsing — Paxton, whose campaign released an ad featuring the senator’s comments in an effort to give him a Tea Party boost.

Further down the ballot, the outcome of the Republican primary for comptroller was too close to call at about 1 a.m Wednesday. State Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, was hovering near 50 percent of the vote, on the verge of an outright victory. State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, was a distant second, leading Debra Medina and Raul Torres.

Among the night’s more surprising results were those in the Democratic primary for agriculture commissioner. Despite having support from the state party, Hugh Fitzsimons, a South Texas rancher, came in last in the three-way race. Jim Hogan, a dairy farmer and insurance agent, will face Kinky Friedman, a musician and novelist, in a runoff.

Hogan led the vote totals, despite spending less than $5,000 on his campaign. Hogan said he did not spend money during the campaign because "it'd be silly to raise money.” He added that there was no need for a campaign website, which he doesn't have, because "somebody's going to Google you anyway."

Friedman, who finished in a close second, has made the legalization of marijuana a cornerstone of his campaign. “Obviously a straight-up win is what you always want, but we knew this was going to be a tough sell for some folks in Texas,” he said in a statement. “Our camp has taken on a tough issue, and we’re not backing down because this is what’s right for the people of our great state.”  

On the Republican side, name recognition appeared to carry the day in the primary for agriculture commissioner. Two former state representatives — Sid Miller of Stephenville and Tommy Merritt of Longview — are headed to a runoff.

The outcome is a disappointment for the state's most powerful agricultural lobbying group, the Texas Farm Bureau, which backed Uvalde Mayor and farmer J Allen Carnes, who came in fifth out of five candidates. 

"In many ways it demonstrates how urban our state has become," said Farm Bureau spokesman Gene Hall. "It was apparent to us that social issues played a big role in an agriculture commissioner's race, and that is unprecedented. It was hard to get the attention of Republican primary voters on those issues that concern farmers and ranchers."

Less surprising was the victory of political scion and newcomer George P. Bush in the Republican primary race for land commissioner. He soundly defeated East Texas businessman David Watts.

Bush gathered with friends and family at a Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth to celebrate his victory. "We have a long fight ahead of us. Our opponents will offer a politics of desperation and they will try to strike fear in the hearts of voters this general election," Bush said.

Bush will face off against Democrat John Cook, the former mayor of El Paso, in the general election. Like most Democratic statewide candidates, Cook was unopposed in the primary.

Other Democrats who advanced to the November general election without a fight include lieutenant governor nominee and state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, attorney general nominee Sam Houston and comptroller nominee Mike Collier.

There was an actual contest in the Democratic race for the seat on the Railroad Commission — the state’s oil and gas regulator — currently occupied by Smitherman. In it, Steve Brown easily beat Dale Henry.

The Railroad Commission has not had a Democratic member in two decades, so Brown will have an uphill climb against the victor of the Republican primary. In that battle, former state Rep. Wayne Christian bested his three opponents, but not by enough to avoid a runoff. He will face Ryan Sitton, an oil and gas engineer, in May.

In an interview, Sitton said he's now the only candidate with experience in the oil and gas industry. "It is crucial that we have people with industry knowledge on the Railroad Commission," he said. 

Christian's campaign manager, Luke Macias, said voters want someone with a proven conservative record. “I think it’s clear when you look at the statewide election results, conservatives — with true conservative records — are getting voters’ attention,” he said. “Wayne Christian is one of those candidates.”

The results in the contested State Board of Education races were largely predictable. Two longtime Republican incumbents, David Bradley of Beaumont and Pat Hardy of Fort Worth, won their primaries. Erika Beltran, a former teacher and activist, won the Democratic primary to replace outgoing board member Mavis Knight.

The statewide judicial races also offered few surprises. All four Republican incumbents easily held on to their party's nomination in the Texas Supreme Court primary. Nathan Hecht, who is running for chief justice, and Jeff Brown and Phil Johnson all defeated their opponents. Jeffrey Boyd ran unopposed. All Republican nominees will have the advantage in November. Only Boyd, Brown and Hecht will face Democratic opponents.

In the race for Texas' other high court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, seven newcomer candidates vied for three vacant seats. Bert Richardson, an administrative judge and an adjunct law professor, easily defeated district judge Barbara Walther in the race for seat 3. Running for seat 4, prosecutor Kevin Yeary avoided a runoff. In the most competitive CCA race, Harris County Assistant District Attorney David Newell defeated District Judge Bud Kirkendall. Only Richardson will face a Democratic candidate, John Granberg, in November. 

Correction: A previous version of this story said Bert Richardson was a prosecutor. He is an administrative judge and an adjunct law professor. 

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/03/05/statewide-races-offer-many-runoffs-and-some-surpri/.

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